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February 2, 2010

Guest blogger: Mary McCauley reviews "Sea of Birds" at Theatre Project

Here's a guest blog entry by my colleague Mary Carole McCauley (, reviewing a new production that will have its final performances Thursday-Saturday at the Theatre Project:  

In “Sea of Birds,” the long and sinuous goose neck of a lamp morphs into the tail on a cow. An armful of sticks turns into a percussion instrument when suddenly dropped upon the floor. In the next instant, one stick is balanced upon a leg. As the limb rocks gently back and forth, the curved piece of wood begins to resemble a seagull in flight.

The multimedia piece running through Saturday at Theatre Project presents one arresting, startling image after the other. The audience revels in the fertile imagination of Sebastienne Mundheim, who not only created the work based on her mother’s memories of wartime Latvia, but who provides the sparse narration.

But watching show presented by the Pennsylvania-based White Box Theatre is a little like walking through an art museum. The paintings aren’t expected to relate to one another, so the most intense pleasure comes from the individual moments. What is missing in “Sea of Birds” is the sense that the score, the movements, the story, and yes, the images themselves, add up to a larger whole.

The show takes place beneath a curved white tent that resembles the

inside of a cave or an egg. Four performers clad entirely in black take turns making shadows with their hands. Or they simultaneously stand up and fall down as if the stage floor had suddenly become coated with ice. Or they manipulate two elegant, oversized sculptures that resemble the skeletons of a human being and a horse.

Mundheim writes in the program notes that “Sea of Birds” is based on her mother’s experiences growing up in Latvia during World War II, at a time when the country was occupied by the German army, and invaded by the Russians. But rather than a strict recounting of history, she says, the show is about inheriting a sensibility in which the most tragic events were suffused with the beauty of the natural world. She writes that the text is limited because it’s not central to the show.

Fair enough.

But because Mundheim chooses to include words, that element ought to be complete, and there are times when she leaves narrative threads dangling. Adding one more piece of information – even if just a phrase, or a sentence -- might provide the sense of closure that audiences crave.

For instance, at one point, Mundheim’s family flees in advance of the Russian army, but her mother’s grandmother, who is old and infirm, is left behind. But the audience is never told what happens to the old woman. Was she killed by the invaders? Did she survive, but die during her family’s long exile? Or were they eventually reunited? Without an answer to that question, the audience is left feeling unsettled and irritated at the narrator for holding out on us.

The original score by James Sugg and Chad Kinsey is moody and evocative and very nearly provides the unifying thread that the audience seeks, but can’t do it unaided.

There also were times when the show, at a mere 45 minutes, seemed overstuffed. I think this is because Mundheim is so entranced by the vibrant visual world that she will go to great lengths to set up an elaborate effect.

For example, the narrator describes how her mother used to play with dolls beneath her bed. Two performers cart a wooden bed on stage, then carefully lower from the bed a miniature “set” consisting of a board covered with grassy hills, on which the dolls move around. Someone else builds a stone path leading from the edge of the Theatre Project stage to the wooden bed. It all takes about five minutes before the “scene” starts -- and the action is over in another two, at which point the performers slowly disassemble the entire contraption.

The problem isn’t that the bed and stones and dolls aren’t appealing. They are, but the pay-off isn’t spectacular enough to justify the prolonged set-up. The more time an audience spends watching a performer preparing to a magic trick, the higher are our expectations. After many long minutes of nothing much going on, the conjurer better pull an elephant, at the very least, out of his top hat.

But though “Sea of Birds” might not be perfect, it is brimming with wonder. This show might not be as seamless as theater pieces by other artists, but it nonetheless yields greater rewards than do many more conventional works.

Mundheim has a remarkable eye and the rare ability to catch her audience by surprise and set us back on our heels. In a profession filled with almost-theres and not-quites, she is the genuine deal, the real thing -- an artist who helps the rest of us see more than we have before.

-- Mary McCauley

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (1)


Ann Futweiler told me about this but I did not see it. I won't make that mistake agian'Thanks for the review.I looked it up and it was amazing.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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